As lecturers we often tend to think first of what we want to teach. This is an entirely natural response if we view ourselves primarily as subject specialists. Given the task of developing a module on, say, the development of medieval domestic architecture, my own immediate priority as a young lecturer was to think of the content – domain knowledge – that it was crucial (in my view) to cover in such a module. I’d then start thinking about how these could be reframed as ‘objectives’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Thinking about assessment often came last, and when I did I often fell back on my own experiences of being assessed at undergraduate and post-graduate level. Not surprisingly, the ‘essay’ or related types of individual written exercises tended to figure prominently. But it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, if students are to develop the kind of ‘graduate attributes’ that are increasingly made explicit on University websites, setting these kinds of traditional forms of assessment will give students a limited palette with which to demonstrate them. Check out the ‘Graduate Attributes’ that relate to your own institution – do the assessments on your modules, or on your courses, REALLY ensure that students can demonstrate these? Is there any kind of ‘constructive alignment’? Being student-centred is about placing the learning needs of students at the heart of your teaching. This extends, also, to the capacities and skills they will need to both secure graduate level jobs and to function effectively as professionals when they do so. Thinking about, designing, and employing authentic assessment is therefore a key aspect of student-centred practice.
In January 2016 the World Economic Forum (WEF) listed the key skills that students are likely to need by 2020 in the fast-changing world of global business. The report drew on feedback from chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers, who were asked to comment on what the current shifts mean, specifically for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies. The ‘10 skills students will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ were:
- Complex problem solving
- Critical thinking
- People management
- Coordinating with others
- Emotional intelligence
- Judgment and decision-making
- Service orientation
- Cognitive flexibility
When considering this list the other day I got to thinking about the traditional ‘essay’ assignment. Whilst this kind of assessment might give students the chance to engage with a handful of the skills or capacities in this list, the majority would be neglected. If the essay or written assignment was developed by a small group (i.e. as a collaborative assignment), this would open up more possibilities (e.g. people management, emotional intelligence, negotiation etc) but do we always get students to reflect on how they have addressed these areas within the group-work process? Even in the context of a group exercise, it might be quite difficult for students to develop and apply all 10. But the crucial message the WEF list does convey – at least for me – is the importance of building assessments that require students to work with others, and to engage with issues, problems or challenges that take them beyond the safe confines of the classroom or campus. Indeed, the WEF list suggests not only that assessments need to be linked to real world skills, but to the real world itself, by requiring students to engage with individuals, organisations or issues within the wider community.
Authentic assessment is not a difficult concept – it simply describes assessments that involve students in ‘real-world’ tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. The tasks in question give students the opportunity to engage in activities that, by their very design, have an in-built relevance that is clear to students and easy to explain to them if necessary. In health-related courses and professional courses – with or without PSRB accreditation requirements – many assessments (or all of them) are already closely aligned with the kinds of values, skills, processes or practices that students will need to demonstrate and/or apply in the professions concerned, be it in the hospital ward, or the court room or some other professional setting. Indeed, increasingly, assessments like projects are often focused on identifying opportunities for enhancements in service provision, professional protocols or aspects of practice. The key issue here is, arguably, that of ‘relevance’. Students can see the rationale for the assessment, and understand why engaging with it might have value for their intellectual or professional skills development. To put it rather more bluntly, students can ‘see the point’. The authenticity of the assessment is explicit, not implicit.
So have a think about the assessments that you have utilised in your own modules this year. Firstly, is the purpose or rationale of the assessment(s) explicit? Have you taken the time to fully explain it or justify its validity? Have you made it clear how and why it is ‘relevant’ to the development of either their subject knowledge or their skills development? Secondly, are the assessments you have designed truly ‘authentic’ in the sense that they are closely aligned with the kinds of skills or practices students may either encounter or need to apply in the real world – and in the world beyond the narrow confines of the ‘subject’ you are teaching? Do they – again to put it bluntly – allow students opportunities to address the WEF list? Do they give students the opportunity to build all of these key skills, or just some? Do you ‘model’ these skills yourself in your own pedagogical approach so students can see what they look like and feel like in practice?
Whilst the future is impossible to predict with 100% certainty, it is likely that many jobs or roles that exist now, will disappear and jobs that currently do not exist at all will become a common feature in the employment landscape. So graduates will not only need different skills to those they need now, they will also have to be adaptable, and continually update their skills as lifelong learners. This means that we also need to build critical reflection into assessments – since students will need to exercise this critical reflective capacity in the future in order to understand how and why they need to develop their knowledge and skill-set, and how to go about addressing this. Which begs the question – how frequently and in what ways do your assessments require students to exercise their reflective faculties? By neglecting this in your assessment strategy you may be doing your students a disservice.
If you want to reflect on how to integrate authentic assessments into your own teaching and into your modules, see the Enhancing the Curriculum Toolkit produced by HEFCEW. Also, see Jon Mueller’s Authentic Assessment Toolkit.
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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
How do you interpret authentic assessment within your discipline?
How do you design authentic assessments? Have you some creative examples you’d like to share via this Blog?
What are your experiences of working with students on authentic forms of assessment?